This post is part of an occasional series on "How To Succeed in College." Click on the author's name above for previous posts.
Perhaps the most controversial issue in education today is teacher evaluation and its relation to compensation. Should the “better” teachers” be paid more? And how do we know whether one teacher is better than another? The standard answer is that the students of the best teachers will score highest on the standard tests. There are, I believe, at least two problems with this idea. First, certain teachers are often assigned the “best” classes—honors students, and English majors. Those will do well on the finals no matter who teaches them. Second, rewarding high test scores requires the professor to “teach to the test,” give practice exams rather than reading homework—in short display the talents of a drill sergeant rather than an intellectual.
Evaluating college teachers is more complex. What I say now is based on three years teaching in a Jesuit high school and 42 in five Jesuit colleges and universities, two of which as dean, plus teaching at three secular universities. At nearly all these places, professors are evaluated for promotion, merit pay and tenure on the basis of teaching, scholarship and service. The college with the best procedures, Holy Cross, required all the evaluating committee members to write the reasons for their decision, to be given to the faculty member, and sign it. It had to be strong enough to stand up in court and the committee had to take public responsibility for their decision. No one was promoted who did not publish. A scholar has the obligation to contribute to the shared knowledge in his/her field, and, at the same time demonstrate mastery, through publication, of what he/she is delivering in class.
As an evaluation tool, the end-of-semester teacher evaluation forms filled out in class are the most controversial and least satisfactory instrument. To prepare for a book on Generation X, one author taught for a year in a community college in order to get more experience with his subject. In the first semester he started out with high standards: reading assignments and short papers for every class, regular quizzes, a research paper, class discussions and a tough final. The students took their revenge on the evaluation forms. In the second semester, to test his theory, he capitulated—didn’t take attendance, gave little homework and high grades—and they loved him. He was now a “good” teacher because he didn’t push.
Anonymous teaching forms also teach students that they can smear a teacher and get away with it. Only a few questionnaires may be that bad, but those are the ones the teacher remembers. A better system would be to select a cross section of the class and invite them to write signed letters to the dean which will be shared with the teacher. The quality of the letter would be evidence of the writer’s credibility. The dean and fellow faculty should visit every class during the semester and write evaluations. And, most important, the dean should scrutinize the syllabus to measure the standards by the reading list, number of papers, and attendance requirements.
If I had a million dollars I would set up a fund to reward challenging and imaginative teaching. In an English course, for example, the syllabus would have to include at least one Big Fat Book—David Copperfield, Brothers Karamozov, Les Miserables, or Count of Monte Cristo—plus three or four other novels and short stories. To make sure they were reading, give a quick quiz and either a discussion outline or one-page essay, every day. In the 1970s at Fordham we read a book a week. Today the same should be possible if the overall intellectual culture of the school supported high standards. The grant would include money to take the class to an opera or symphony, and dinner. At the end all the students would read one another’s final papers and critique them in class.
Of course, seeing the workload, maybe no one would want to take the course. If so, the school has another problem.
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.